Ever since Stephen Colbert took over “The Late Show” there has been buzz over the newly designed show. CBS spent three and a half months and $18 million renovating the Ed Sullivan Theater. Then Colbert hired jazz musician Jon Batiste and his band Stay Human—a move that promised to infuse the show with energy. Those would be reasons enough to want to attend a live taping of the show, but that’s only the beginning. The live audience gets an inside look at the artifice alongside a heavy dose of entertainment you can only see if you are in the theater.
Tickets are free, but you have to plan ahead. Right now the show tends to be booked about four weeks ahead. You can find tickets here. If you are in Manhattan and want to try to see the show without planning ahead, try going standby. Just show up at the theater by 1 p.m. and put your name on the list. If there is room, you will get in. Often that depends on the day of the week and the announced guests.
Once you get your tickets, though, that does not guarantee entry. As was true with “The Colbert Report,” they always oversell the show. Tickets state that you need to be in line by 3:15 p.m. When I went, I was in line by 1 p.m. and was still No. 68 in line. Others have told me that they got there by 2:30 and were fine. The show seats 400—a big difference over “The Colbert Report –which only had seats for 150.
Around 3 p.m. the staff will check your ticket (you can print it or have it on your phone) and your ID and give you a number, a stamp on your hand, and a time to return (between 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.). Make sure to keep your number—that is now your ticket into the show.
Once you get back, you should be prepared to stand in line again. After you go through security, you will wait in a line inside the theater lobby for about an hour. There are screens showing Colbert clips, but it is not like the waiting area for “The Colbert Report” where the volume was loud enough to hear the clips and the lobby had more memorabilia.
Eventually everyone is led into the theater. There really are no bad seats in the house. Some folks that sit up front may have visibility blocked by the cameras—so that is where getting in line later may be a smart move. The theater is really impressive and once you see it you will understand why almost every guest remarks on how beautiful it is.
Before seeing Colbert, comedian Paul Mercurio comes out to fluff the audience and get everyone in the mood. He’s pretty good at getting the audience to laugh, but I didn’t find him as funny as Pete Dominick, who did the same job for “The Colbert Report.” Mercurio mostly gets his laughs by getting audience members to come up on stage so he can make fun of them. Dominick was more of a political comedian and he helped set the tone for the satire of “The Colbert Report.”
A key part of the show is the live audience laughing. So both Mercurio and Colbert’s stage manager, Mark McKenna, who also worked on “The Colbert Report,” stress to the audience that the audience has a huge role to play in the taping. Not only do we hear that we help encourage Colbert, but also that we play a role in affecting the viewers at home. At “The Colbert Report” the audience was also told to laugh hard—and then we heard it would help Colbert beat Jon Stewart at the Emmys. And while that is all true, it is weird to be told you have to laugh hard. They literally test the volume on the audience and make you do it again and again until they are satisfied that you can be loud enough.
Next up is Jon Batiste and his band. Seeing them live is definitely a real treat and they walk the aisles and interact a lot with the audience. One perk of being in the theater is that every time there is a commercial break, the band plays. And on the night I was there Vance Joy accompanied them. Not too bad.
After all that it is time to meet Colbert himself. He comes out to loud applause –we have, after all, been coached to be loud. He then tells us that we have to prepare to greet him again for the actual taping. “We will see how well you can fake an orgasm,” he says. At least he gets how strange it all is.
One of the best parts of seeing the show is getting the time with Colbert before the actual taping starts. That is when he lets the audience ask questions. Our night we got three in—and I was able to ask one about whether he had plans to do anything like the Super PAC for the next election cycle. He answered that the Super PAC had been a spontaneous idea—so he couldn’t say for certain. Then another audience member asked if he had a favorite restaurant for ramen. He replied that he could now afford meat—but the fun part was that later in the show he made a reference to ramen. He will generally try to make some sort of inside joke like that—and the audience loves it.
Colbert leaves to come right back out and the actual taping starts. Given that the new show has so many more guests than “The Colbert Report,” there is a good chance that there will be a guest or two that will also be exciting for you to see live. The show tends to close with a musical act.
After the musical act ends, he will need to reshoot any parts that didn’t work out. Our night he had two words he had to say again since they were unclear in the original taping. We also learned that they would have to cut six minutes of footage in post-production. We watched him repeat the two words a few times—and the show was over. We left the theater by 7 p.m. while the band played out in the lobby.
Seeing a live taping is a somewhat surreal experience. Besides the ways that the staff pushes the audience to be loud and laugh, it is also unusual to see the process of creating the show. Colbert’s reference to faking an orgasm is an apt metaphor – there is a sense of forced performance for the audience that can feel awkward.
But it is not all about faking it. The audience gets the benefit of about twice as much entertainment –from the extra time with Colbert to the live glimpses of the theater and the extra music by the band. Beyond that, though, the audience becomes an insider, part of the show itself and not just a passive viewer. Part of that process means that the audience can no longer naïvely pretend that “The Late Show” just magically appears on their screens. Having pulled back the curtain, they now have a real understanding of the work --and play --that goes into it every night.